Kevin Burke's body was telling him that it was over. The end of the road had come early. A fourth straight season was going to end with a loss -- this time in the national semifinal final -- after he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown to give Mary Hardin-Baylor a two touchdown lead in the second half.
"You start to think that his might not be your day and things were not going well," Burke said. "Then you realize that's not the Mount Union way. That's not what I have been taught here."
Burke's mind won out and the Purple Raiders pulled off a fourth-quarter for the ages on Saturday afternoon at Mount Union Stadium.
Trailing 28-14 heading into the fourth, Mount Union scored 34 points in the final 15 minutes, including three touchdowns in the final 3:42 to earn an eighth straight trip to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl with a breathtaking 48-35 win in front of 5,125 fans.
The first 45 minutes was filled with several big plays and game-turning ones, but nothing compared to the final 15 minutes. Mount Union began its miracle finish just seven seconds into the fourth quarter when Burke found a wide-open Julius Moore in the end zone to make it 28-21.
Mary Hardin-Baylor (13-1) was stopped on the next series and within a flash the game was tied at 28-28 when freshman Hank Spencer blocked the punt and teammate Nyejel Thomas recovered the ball in the end zone. In a matter of just two minutes, the Purple Raiders went from a dormant state to a fired-up team.
"I don't know what happened on that play. We were not rushing the punter," said senior All-American safety Nick Driskill. "They just kind of took their time and we got the block."
And the momentum, too.
The Crusaders didn't do anything on their next possession and were forced to punt again. It looked like Mount Union was going to move down the field and take the lead before they fumbled shy of the 50 and the Crusaders took advantage of the mistake, again.
Mary Hardin-Baylor needed just two plays to take a 35-28 lead with 7:39 left. All of their points came off the five Mount Union turnovers.
But that wasn't the last score. Not by a long shot.
Senior running back Blair Skilliter tied the game at 35-35 with 3:42 left on a 2-yard run to set up the wild finish. The Crusaders punted again and the Purple Raiders ran the two-minute offense to perfection and moved to the 12-yard line with :12 seconds remaining. The call was to run Simon up the middle to set up a short field goal for the win, but the senior running back caught Mary Hardin-Baylor sleeping and when they woke up he was in the end zone and Mount Union led 42-35 with :05 seconds left in the game.
"We wanted the field goal but I saw a big hole and then end zone so I just ran for it," said Simon. "I saw the national championship game in my sights."
Simon's touchdown was the eventual game-winner, but wasn't the one that ended the game. The Crusaders used several laterals on their final offensive play and after three attempts, the fourth was caught by Mount Union's Matt Fechko and the junior defensive tackle capped the game with a 25-yard touchdown as time expired to set off a celebration on the field.
Mount Union dominated in total yards (457-275) and held UMHB to just 13 first downs in the game, but had just the one turnover on the game's final play.
"I think I experienced every emotion possible in this game," said Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres with a big smile. "I thought our defense played exceptional. Mary Hardin-Baylor was right up there (offensively) in every statistical category and we played well on that side of the ball."
The Purple Raiders will face St. Thomas (Minn.) for the national championship at 7 p.m. Friday night at Salem Stadium in Salem, Va.